In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king of Corinth, and the founder of the Isthmian Games – one of the ancient Greeks’ four major games, which included the Olympics. Sisyphus was the wisest of all men, and a clever trickster who fathered the hero Odysseus, of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately, Sisyphus’ cunning was combined with questionable ethics. That got him in trouble with the gods, especially with Zeus. Sisyphus violated Xenia, the ancient Greeks’ sacred laws of hospitality which protected travelers and guests. He executed some of his guests to demonstrate his ruthlessness. That angered Zeus, whose divine responsibilities included the promotion of Xenia.
On another occasion, Zeus kidnapped Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. When her father went looking of her, Sisyphus told him where to find his daughter. In exchange, he got Asopus to create a spring to flow into Sisyphus’ city of Corinth. That snitching made Zeus angrier still. So he sent the god of death, Thanatos, to take Sisyphus and chain him in the underworld. Sisyphus however tricked Thanatos; he asked him how the chains worked, then chained that deity. With Death chained, the mortally ill could no longer find release from their earthly sufferings, and no sacrifices could be made. The gods threatened Sisyphus with dire punishment if he did not free Thanatos, so he reluctantly did.
10. In Greek Mythology, Sisyphus Was Too Clever for His Own Good
The mythology of Sisyphus had him pull off one more trick to cheat Death. He instructed his wife not to bury him or perform any of the sacred death rituals when he passed away, and to just throw his corpse out. She obeyed, and when Sisyphus arrived at the underworld, he begged Thanatos to allow him to return to earth to punish his wife for her “impiety”. Death agreed, but once Sisyphus was back on earth, he jumped bail and went on the lam. He continued to live to a ripe old age, before he died a second time. That was when Sisyphus discovered he had been too clever by half, and too smart for his own good.
The gods were not happy that Sisyphus had showed them up and made them look like fools. They also took offense at his self-aggrandizing deceitfulness, and the hubris that made him think he was more cunning than Zeus. So they set out to make an example of him. The gods thought, with some reason, that few punishments are more terrible than an eternity of futile and hopeless labor. So they condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill. Soon as Sisyphus got his boulder to the top of the hill, it rolled down the other side, and he had to go back down and collect his boulder to roll it up the hill once again.
9. Violations of the Laws of Hospitality Was Seriously Frowned Upon in Ancient Greece
Ixion, in Greek mythology, was a son of the war god Ares and a mortal woman, who became a king of the Lapiths tribe in Thessaly, in northern Greece. From early on, Ixion built up an infamous reputation as somebody who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Because of his misdeeds on earth – and up in the heavens as well – the gods condemned him to eternal torment. Ixion’s first major trespass that offended the gods was against his father in law. He had promised his wife’s sire a valuable present as a bride price – wealth paid by the groom to the parents of his bride. However, he reneged and failed to pay up after the marriage.
So the father-in-law seized some of Ixion’s valuable horses as security for the promised bride price. Ixion pretended to shrug it off. Sometime later, he invited his father-in-law to a feast, and there, orchestrated his demise by shoving him into a bed of burning coals. That crime was particularly odious in Greek eyes because it violated Xenia – the laws of hospitality that governed the relationship between guests and hosts. The breach of Xenia left Ixion defiled, shunned by fellow Greeks and unfit to live amidst men. Nobody was willing to perform the necessary religious rituals that would cleanse him of his guilt and restore him to good standing. So Ixion was forced to live in the wilderness as an outlaw. As you’ll find out, things were about to get way worse for him.
8. Greek Mythology Shows That Hitting on a God’s Wife Was Seriously Uncool
Zeus took pity on Ixion. Although promotion of Xenia was part of the chief Olympian god’s portfolio, he cleansed him of the defilement, and invited him to Mount Olympus, to dine at the table of the gods. However, when Ixion was introduced to Zeus’ wife, Hera, he fell passionately in love and lusted after her. Behind Zeus’ back, he started to hit on and pursue Hera. That was another big breach of Xenia: to lust after and pursue your host’s wife was a major violation of a guest’s obligations to his host. Indeed, that was how the Trojan War started, when Paris seduced Helen while he a guest of her husband.
When Zeus heard, he couldn’t believe that Ixion, whom he had rescued and cleansed of his guilt, then honored by hosting him in heaven, could be so ungrateful and brazen. So he made a cloud in the shape of Hera, and sent her Ixion’s way to see what his guest would do. Sure enough, Ixion ravished the fake Hera – a union that ultimately produced the centaurs. According to Greek mythology, the astonished and livid Zeus expelled the ingrate from Olympus, and blasted his former guest with a thunderbolt. He then ordered the messenger god, Hermes, to seize Ixion and bind him to a wheel of fire, condemned to spin forever across the heavens.
To be Zeus’ mistress was a tough row to hoe. The chief Olympian god’s relentless pursuit, persistence, rough wooing, and refusal to take “no” for an answer, was bad enough. Worse for those who gave in to Zeus, or were forcibly taken by him, was that they then had to deal with his insanely jealous wife, Hera, and her crazy punishments. Punishments not of her philandering husband, but of his victims. Leto was Zeus’ first mistress, and became the first to fall victim both to the chief god, who slaked his lust and abandoned her when she got pregnant, and then to the bonkers wrath of his wife.
6. In Greek Mythology, A Heavily Pregnant Leto Was Forced to Ceaselessly Wander the World
Although the chief Olympian god’s affair with Leto and her resultant pregnancy had occurred before Hera’s marriage to Zeus, the Queen of Heaven was still jealous of Leto. So Zeus’ wife set out to turn the life of her hubby’s ex into a living hell. First, Hera kicked the pregnant Leto out of Mount Olympus, so she was forced to wander the world amongst mortals. Then, when it was time to give birth, the Queen of Heaven saw to it that the childbirth was as miserable as could be, by prolonging Leto’s labor.
Hera decreed that Leto could not give birth on “terra firma” – the mainland or any island under the sun. She then sent emissaries to all cities and settlements, to forbid them to offer Leto shelter, food, or water. Leto was thus forced to continuously wander the earth, without a chance to settle down anywhere to give birth. Zeus’ heavily pregnant ex crisscrossed the world for years while in labor, unable to find a resting place. She eventually came across a barren island not connected to the ocean floor, which did not count as an “island” by Hera’s definition.
5. Even for a Deity, Hera Might Have Gone Over the Top in Her Vindictiveness Towards Leto
The barrenness of the island discovered by Leto also meant it had nothing to lose, and thus had nothing to fear from Hera if it defied her will. There, Leto finally gave birth to the gods Artemis and Apollo. Hera, now even more jealous of Leto after she gave birth to Zeus’ children, sent a dragon to chase her and her newborns around. In their flight, they sought refuge in Lycia, whose peasants, on Hera’s instructions, sought to prevent Leto and her infants from drinking water.
So Leto turned them into frogs, before the infant Apollo eventually slew the dragon. Hera also sent the gigantic Titan Tityos to assault Leto. She was once again saved by her children, Apollo and Artemis, who ended their mother’s would-be assailant. Hera eventually came to terms with the situation, accepted things as they were, and let Leto and her children be. Leto then went on to become a goddess of motherhood, with a divine portfolio that also included protection of the young.
Lycurgus of Thrace was a mythical king of the Edoni people in southern Thrace, and he had a beef with Dionysus, the Greek god of grapes and wine. According to Greek mythology, Lycurgus got drunk on wine and tried to forcibly slake his lust upon his own mother. When he sobered up and realized what he had almost done, he swore off the drink, became a teetotaler. He also enacted a version of Prohibition in his kingdom: he banned wine, and ordered the destruction of all grape vines throughout the realm. Lycurgus also banned the religious cult of Dionysus, whom he refused to acknowledge as divine, and prohibited the worship of the grape god in his kingdom.
Dionysus was a god, and was thus not inclined to heed the dictates of a mortal, not even a mortal king. So when his disciples, the Maenads, threw a festival in honor of the wine god atop the sacred mountain of Nyseion in Lycurgus’ kingdom, Dionysus took on human form and attended as the guest of honor. When Lycurgus heard that his command had been defied and that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he flew into a rage and rushed to Mount Nyseion to break up the party. There, he slew with an ax a Maenad who had nursed Dionysius as a child, and chased the festival attendants out with an ox goad.
3. In Greek Mythology, the God of Wine Was Not All Fun and Games
To save himself from the livid Lycurgus, Dionysus in human form was forced to flee, and to escape the wrath of the angry king, leapt into the sea. There, Dionysus was rescued by the sea nymph Thetis, who kindly received the wine god and sheltered him in an undersea cave. In the meantime, Lycurgus conducted an anti-Dionysian purge throughout his kingdom. He carried out a persecution in which the Maenads and other followers of Dionysus were rounded up, arrested, and imprisoned. Understandably, Dionysus was greatly angered by Lycurgus disrespect and impiety. His divine punishment was take away the Thracian king’s sanity, and reduce him to a raving loon.
In Greek mythology, a crazed Lycurgus slew his wife and family. He had ordered all grape vines cut down, and in a fit of insanity, the deranged monarch mistook his own son for a vine. He chopped him up with a sword, and pruned away his ears, nose, fingers and toes. Dionysus was still not done with him, however. The wine god laid a curse upon Lycurgus’ kingdom, which rendered its soil barren and unable to produce fruit. The desperate Edonians sought advice from an oracle, who informed them that fertility would not return to their land while Lycurgus was alive. So the Edonians seized their king, tied him up, and flung him to a man-eating horse, which tore Lycurgus to pieces.
The Ancient Greeks’ worldview and mythology differed greatly from the orderly worldview of the major monotheistic religions, which worship an omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible God. The Ancient Greeks often saw their gods as arbitrary and capricious, and few myths depict that conception of the Olympians’ arbitrariness and capriciousness as does the myth of Actaeon. His fate differs from that of those described in most entries in this article, mortal or immortal beings who did something to invite the wrath of the gods.
If those unfortunates did not actively invite the wrath of the gods, then they at least found themselves in a situation in which the wrath of a good was understandable, even if unjustified. Actaeon on the other hand, endured a divine punishment despite the fact that he had not done anything of his own volition that could have justified his fate. In Greek mythology, Actaeon was a famous Theban hero, who loved to hunt in the outback of his native region of Boeotia. Like the hero Achilles, of Iliad fame, Actaeon had been taught to hunt by the centaur Chiron.
Although the extent of Actaeon’s sin, if it could even be called that, was to simply have had the misfortune of bumping into a naked goddess, Artemis was livid that a mortal saw her naked. So in her wrath, she turned him into a stag. The terrified Actaeon bounded into the woods, but his own dogs detected the scent of a stag. They failed to recognize their master in his new body, chased him down, and tore him to pieces.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading